By Jim Workman
West Virginia Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Substance abuse, addiction and drug overdose deaths are all too common in the state of West Virginia.
Some health officials have dubbed it the Mountain State’s greatest public health threat and an epidemic of epidemics.
Most agree that more treatment options are needed, but legislators at the State Capitol differ on how and who should pay for the treatment.
Monday, the House Judiciary Committee passed Committee Substitute for Senate Bill 401, “Requiring specified coverage in health benefit plans for treatment of substance abuse disorders.” It goes to the House floor with the committee’s recommendation for passage.
But it didn’t pass committee without debate.
According to a Center of Disease Control report, opioids, prescription and illegal, are the main cause of drug overdose deaths. Opioids were involved in 42,249 deaths in the United States in 2016, and opioid overdose deaths were five times higher in 2016 than 1999.
In 2016, West Virginia led with the highest rates of death due to drug overdose at 52.0 per 100,000.
Delegate Geoff Foster, R-Putnam voiced opposition to the bill, stating his concern that it was just another tax burden on businesses. In further discussion he stated he felt addiction is a choice one makes, thereby an avoidable health cost, unlike a tick bite which may cause Lyme Disease, related to another bill discussed in the meeting.
Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, took opposition to Foster’s statement.
“Addiction is not always a choice,” Pushkin said. “Anyone of your family members can fall into it.”
In West Virginia there are a lot occupations that are physically challenging, increasing the chance that a worker may be prescribed a pain killer, Pushkin explained. “We lead the nation in accidental overdose deaths. That number goes up every year. We formed a task force to look into it, and many times the task force comes back with a recommendation and we ignore them. This (bill) was one of the recommendations of the task force.
“This will keep people from dying,” Pushkin said. “People can’t get help when they’re dead. The cost of not passing this bill far outweigh the cost of passing it. This will actually save money in the long run, if you can look at the big picture.”
Delegate Charlotte Lane, R-Kanawha, pointed out that coverage by Public Employee’s Insurance Agency is not included in the bill.
Delegate Amy Summers, R-Taylor, said during in a previous House Health committee meeting on the bill, there were concerns about PEIA costs related to the bill. She said estimates were between $6 million and $9 million.
“We do have a big drug problem in the state,” Lane said. “If insurance doesn’t cover it, society as a whole will pay the costs.”
Lane said she intends to work with counsel for an amendment on the floor to add PEIA coverage.
“I am very reluctantly in favor of this bill,” said Delegate Mark Zatezalo, R-Hancock. “Make no mistake, society is bearing the cost no matter what.”
Zatezalo said his concerns lie with those bearing an additional financial burden, who will pay higher insurance costs that they don’t need and will never use. “That disturbs me. But due to the circumstances in this state, I’m voting for this bill, There’s no easy way out of this dilemma.”
Delegate Tom Fast, R-Fayette, acknowledged the drug problem as well, but expressed concerns of the legislature’s involvement in governing insurance coverage.
“I’ve been here four years and we have passed more than 20 bills directed towards this drug epidemic,” Fast said. “This bill is another example of having a privately negotiated contract, and government deciding to take that piece of paper and start writing lines in that neither previous party negotiated. That’s where I have to draw the line. I don’t care if it’s with this bill or any other bill. That’s exactly what’s happening.”
Fast compared the practice to issues he had with Obamacare.
“My health insurance plan became unaffordable,” he explained. “They wrote in all these terms, like no pre-existing conditions, no caps on ultimate payouts. The next thing I knew my payment shot through the roof, to the point I couldn’t afford it.”
Fast said his problem with the bill was the “sheer constitutionality of it,” adding, “A free society should not have a government taking a privately negotiated contract and write its own terms in and taking other terms out.”